ST. LOUIS – Two things are certain about biometrics: It is the hot buzzword in identity management for convenience and protection from terrorists and identity thieves – and it's not foolproof.
Anil Jain, a University Distinguished Professor of computer science and engineering at Michigan State University, says the wizardry world of identifying people by unique physical characteristics -- fingerprints, the landscape of the iris, the digitized appearance and structure of their faces – is filled with promise.
But science still has work to do to deliver technology that meets the demands brought by threats of terrorism and identity theft.
"The advantages of biometrics is that it is based on who you are as opposed to what you have and what you know, such as ID cards or passwords," Jain said. "Biometrics is not necessarily proposed to replace the existing methods of identification, but to strengthen them. Having said that, there always are practical problems in deployment."
Jain told the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting session on "Strengthening the Scientific Basis of Biometric Identification and Authentication" that science is developing better sensors to gather the data that pinpoint an individual's identity, and that science also has an opportunity to manage expectations and improve accuracy rates.
Biometrics has leaped from the world of fingerprinting criminals on blotters to enter the world of hi-tech scanners which are popping up at airports and grocery store cash registers. And it's not just fingers – the iris of the eye also holds unique, and highly accurate, identifying traits. Even faces – susceptible as they can be to age, weight and fashion – are succumbing to the algorithms and data fusion that science offers.
The precision of biometrics is impressive. While the performance depends on the testing protocol and environmental conditions, it can exceed 99 percent accuracy. Yet Jain notes that as the technology becomes more pervasive, even small margins of errors can have consequences that range from inconvenient and embarrassing to tragic.
One highly publicized example is the case of Brandon Mayfield, a Portland, Ore., U.S. citizen held for two weeks as a suspect in the Madrid train bombings in 2004. The FBI fingerprint system matched prints at the scene to Mayfield, and an independent examiner verified the match. But Spanish National Police examiners eventually identified another man who matched the prints.
The FBI acknowledged the error and Mayfield was released.
Jain identified four areas of scientific emphasis:
As commercial uses become more popular, Jain said science will have a greater role not only in improving biometrics, but also accurately representing the strengths and weaknesses of systems.
"Until recently vendors were providing the performance data, but numbers were not realistic," Jain said. "In the field of biometrics the academic community has started playing a role only recently. Vendors don't always have the best interest of science, but are more interested in selling the system and making a profit. Scientists have to tell the honest story and provide realistic performance -- and that it is not foolproof. That it is not foolproof no matter what people say."
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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